BMW M1: 50 years of BMW M cars

By: Mark Higgins, Photography by: Unique Cars Archives, BMW

bmw m1 side bmw m1 side

The year was 1978 and the place was the Paris Motorshow



It was here the first official M-badged car the BMW M1 – a stunning hand-built, street-legal race car made its debut. It was the fastest German road car of its era.

At the time the Motorsport entity was led by Jochen Neerpasch and BMW was keen on going head-to-head against Porsche on the track, and insisted the M1 sportscar be a mid-engine layout to outgun its German rival.

Famous designer Giorgetto Giugaro penned the M1 taking some distant inspiration from the 1972 Paul Bracq BMW Turbo design study.

| Watch next: BMW M1 Procar review - video


The car that stunned the industry

The fibreglass bodied machine is one of the rarest models with just 460 M1s – or E26 to give it its model code – built between 1978 and 1981. Fifty three were used for motorsport.

And we can thank, in part, Lamborghini for the BMW M1.

BMW had insufficient resources to build the 400 road going examples within the time frame as per racing regs, so joined forces with Lamborghini, who was to create the chassis, assemble prototypes (seven were made) and produce the car. But the Italian car maker’s parlous financial state and potential production delays meant BMW went it alone.

The BMW M1s tubular space frame chassis was the work Gian Paolo Dallara, who later became famous for his F1, sportscars, openwheelers and IndyCar chassis.


Located behind the cabin sat an M-developed version of the 3.5-litre M88 straight six with Kugelfischer Bosch mechanical fuel injection and Magneti-Marelli ignition. The twin cam four-valve per-cylinder engine produced 202kW and 330Nm enough for the road going version to top 265 km/h. The racing version generated 345kW and a top speed of 310km/h.

Paul Rosche, another BMW legendary figure, led the engine development on the M88 straight six.

A ZF five-speed manual was the only gearbox offered and power was fed to the rear wheels through a 40 per cent locking limited slip diff.

Underpinning the BMW M1 was adjustable coli spring double wishbone suspension with Bilstein gas-filled shockers. The steering was un-assisted rack and pinion and the stopping power courtesy of 300mm front and 297mm rear discs. Campagnolo provided the 16x7 inch front and 16x8 inch rear alloy wheels that were covered by Pirelli 205/55 front and 225/50 rear tyres.


While it was bred as a street-legal race car, it was above all a BMW, meaning the interior was sumptuous and well decked out with leather and cloth fixed-position sports seats, power windows, a decent stereo system and air-conditioning.

Despite the calamity with Lamborghini early on, Italian companies figured prominently in M1 production with the fibreglass body made by ItalianResin and completed by Italdesign, while the interior and chassis were the work of Marchesi.

Partly completed the cars were shipped to German auto specialist Baur for final hand assembly before more shipping to BMW Motorsport for final inspection, sign-off and delivery.


It was still BMW luxury inside

What better way to join the dots between the BMW M1 road and race cars than a one-make championship in 1979 supporting many of the grands prix?

Formula One, sportscar and touring car stars including Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet, Mario Andretti, James Hunt, Hans Stuck and Australian world champ Alan Jones were pitted against each other. With substantial prize money and egos at stake, the racing produced a fair bit of biffo and at times carnage ensued.

Called the Procar series, BMW entered five cars with outside teams fielding the rest, including one driven by a Helmut Marko, who had a fair bit to do with the careers of Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo in their Red Bull days.


The Procar series lasted just two years before folding as BMW had commenced plotting its entry into F1. Niki Lauda won the first series driving for Ron Dennis, (of McLaren fame) and Nelson Piquet the second.


50 Years of BMW M cars:

Part two - BMW E30 M3

Part three - BMW E24 635 CSI M6

Part four - BMW E39 M5

Part five - BMW 1M

Part six - Z3 M coupe


From Unique Cars #462, Feb 2022


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